Friday, November 13, 2015

We Are A Mirror

I used to write an improv newsletter twice a month.

I used to improvise, on stage, a couple times a week!

I was in a group called Trail Mix that did 3-person monoscenes, a group called Book Club that did hour+ genre narratives, and a group called BLOODCUP that did ... god, I dunno. We wore black outfits and makeup and improvised based on existential dread and raw emotional truths.

I had a dream about improv the other night. I was onstage introducing an improv-in-the-dark set -- kind of like an improvised radio play, where the improvisors are onstage, the lights are off, and the audience can only listen and imagine -- and I kind of woke up in the middle. But in my eyes-still-closed, knowing-I'm-awake state, I kept silently introducing this set. Practicing what I would say and how, what inflections, when I would make eye contact with the audience. I used to do this with Trail Mix and BLOODCUP, starting off sets with a kind of tone and language that I hoped would carry us into our sets.

I haven't improvised on a stage since May 15th, the night before I left San Diego in a moving truck with my brother. That's six months ago now, almost to the day. I moved to Ohio to live and recover from a rather traumatic life change -- my wife broke up with me in January after 3+ years together, and less than a year as a wedded couple. I stayed at my brother's place for about 6 weeks, then had to leave that place after another traumatic life change. I had started to date someone in San Diego about a month before I left, both of us thinking it was going to be a nice way to spend a few weeks. But, as can happen, we found that we really (really, really) enjoyed one another's brains and manners and points-of-view, so she decided to come visit me in Ohio.

(( "I've never seen lightning bugs in person," is what she said. "I can help you with that problem," is what I told her. ))

I wasn't yet properly divorced, not that anyone in Ohio had asked me about that specifically, and the evening before her arrival I was told that it was inappropriate to have a romantic partner stay in the same room and in the same bed as me. I was welcome to continue to stay, of course, but she would need to find an alternate arrangement.

I moved my stuff out the following morning, and into my parents' house. Into my own teenage bedroom, to be precise. There were hurt feelings all around I think, and I don't know that I've properly recovered myself. I felt like -- I literally said the words out loud, in a whisper, alone in a room -- They don't have my back.

This was the thing Book Club would say to each other before going out to improvise our monthly show. I've got your back.

Except one member of our group, who would, ironically, humorously, say Watch your back.

It always put my hackles up. I didn't know how to express why this was so, and I doubted by own instincts about it. I needed to lighten up, is what I told myself. That was just how he was, and in saying the one thing he actually meant the other.

I'm not sure if I believe that now, several months on. I think he was saying the thing that he meant.

Before breaking up -- heck, before getting married -- when my wife and I would argue she would often, regularly tell me that she didn't think she could be the partner I wanted her to be. This would always upset me, and it derailed anything else I was thinking of. It would make me so mad because I thought it meant she was abandoning ship, that we could no longer even discuss the issue at hand, whatever it might be, because now we were suddenly in Should we break up or not? mode.

But after actually breaking up, it occurred to me -- like it should have all along -- that I should just listen to people when they say something. When someone declares, simply and straightforwardly, what they think and feel, you should just trust that person and what they are saying.

(( I'm not saying the end of our relationship was a failure on her part or as my partner -- what I mean is, she was saying very simply "I do not want to be your partner," and I was refusing to hear that. ))

I have moved around a lot as a grown-up. Cincinnati to Chicago to San Francisco to Ohio to Los Angeles to Vermont to Baltimore to San Diego to Ohio to Thailand. I have lived in any one of those places for anything from 6 months to 4 years, and I have made friends and social circles in all of them. My social network in San Diego was by far the biggest, and it felt the deepest. I was going onstage regularly with other people, not knowing what was about to happen, trusting that we were making art together.

I've got your back is what I told them, They've got my back is how I felt in return.

What is the idea that I'm circling right now? I'm not entirely sure. Some writers write with a thesis statement in mind, but I've always written with the need to figure out as I went along exactly what I was talking about.

I know that this entry started because I was writing an email to a new improv friend I made when I moved back to Ohio. He had also just moved there, from Baltimore, where I first took improv classes. I didn't know him there, but we had friends in common. The improv scene in Ohio was -- well. I dunno what it was, or what it is. I went to a few jams, I went to a show. It felt like -- I just wrote this in the email to my friend, about 45 minutes ago -- it felt like going on a date with someone when I was clearly not over my last relationship.

When I started going to improv shows in San Diego, I saw groups and players and I thought, There are no teams where I see a Matt-shaped hole. So I took classes, and it was only after having several scenes with my classmate Arbora that felt really good that felt like icebergs with more under the surface than was visible that I suggested putting our own team together. That turned into Trail Mix. With Trail Mix I felt like I was working with friends and fellow travelers*, and like we were growing and learning and making something together.

(( *"fellow travelers" is a whole other improv-related blog entry someday. ))

Being in Trail Mix and taking classes led me to Book Club, where I always felt like I was running and trying to keep up. That's not a bad thing! It was meant I was doing work that scared me. I probably failed more than I succeeded, but I learned a lot and I got to improvise with, objectively, better improvisors, better actors, and better performers than me. If you can stand a regular dose of humility and humiliation, that's not a bad masterclass in improv. Book Club led me to BLOODCUP, which started as a wouldn't it be funny if... kind of joke about an improv group, and led to the feeling that I was doing a thing, with people I cared for deeply, that would not have existed if I hadn't been in the room.

That's not to disparage Trail Mix or Book Club, it's just to say -- nobody every said to me, about Trail Mix doing monoscene or even about outright being in Book Club, that any of it was a bad idea. Even if it wasn't everyone's cup of tea, those were groups that were someone's cup of tea. BLOODCUP was a group that people actually told me was a pretty bad idea. I don't think anyone not a member of BLOODCUP ever expressed to me that they liked what we were doing. But goddamn, every time we played a BLOODCUP set, I went offstage feeling aLIVE. I felt like, holy shit, I do not understand what just happened, but I loved it.

I feel that way about the novel I wrote, and I feel that way about my weirdo improv team that performed like 3 shows ever.

What I'm saying is, peeking into the Cincinnati improv scene, I was just flat-out not ready to a) break into it, b) help build up what is a young and growing scene, or c) do the legwork necessary to make new friends in it.

I've got your back was a promise still echoing in my head. It wasn't something I wanted to hear from anyone else yet, because I didn't feel capable of believing it.

I texted my friend + BLOODCUP partner Keith, after going to a Cincinnati show, that I was quitting improv forever. It was a joke, but also not a joke? I think I was trying out the idea. But it wasn't about improv. It was about feeling lost and hurt and intimidated by trying again after falling down.

"A single wave sinks your boat," is what he said in return.

I've thought about that a lot. I think it's true -- I think it's my first impulse a lot of the time, at least. At least in the recovery mode I spent a lot of this year in, I was looking for any excuse to take No for an answer, almost all of the time.

I used to go to Book Club practices practicing speeches in my head. I was going to go through with this practice, I would tell myself, and then announce at the end that I was quitting. The feeling of trying and striving and coming up short -- a lot! -- was unpleasant and embarrassing. But I never went through with that impulse, largely because I just enjoyed being with those people so damn much.

In the months between getting married and then not being married, I would have dreams that my wife got a new job and told me we were moving to Minneapolis. Minneapolis was where we'd intended to move after leaving Baltimore, to follow my desire to go back to the midwest. She got a job offer in San Diego 2 weeks before we were set to embark, and we switched gears. In my dream, I was devastated at having to leave San Diego. I never intended to go there, but once there I never wanted to leave. I would wake up and tell her about the dream -- I had it 3 or 4 or half a dozen times -- and I told her I didn't want to go.  

"No one is going to make you," she said, both of us awake.

I made my own dream come true.

I don't know if a wave sank my boat, or if I just jumped overboard.

I don't feel I've quit improvising, though I haven't done it in practice or performance for six months. But I think I've been very fearful of asking anyone, or expecting anyone, to have my back, onstage or off.

I don't read a lot of improv blogs (or newsletters), but a San Diego improv acquaintance posted this one today, and I read it, and I keep thinking it over. Its thesis is to pick one team and be great on it, instead of being just okay on five. I guess that's good advice, but it's not why it sticks in my head. The single line I keep thinking about is, Form a group with people you dig seeing and hanging out with. That's why and how I started Trail Mix with Arbora and it's why and how I started BLOODCUP with Terri and Keith.

I think I kind of forgot about that. I didn't start improvising onstage because I felt an undeniable draw to the artform. I mean, I totally dig the artform! But I did it as an excuse to hang out with and play with people I really liked and trusted, and who trusted me back.

When it doesn't feel like that -- for all sorts of reasons, some of them outside of me and some of them in my own head and heart -- I haven't gone onstage.

We are BLOODCUP. We are a mirror. You are BLOODCUP. Can I get a suggestion of something you are afraid of?